with Gerson Da Cunha
Adman and Activist
Gerson Da Cunha is as multifaceted as they come. He
starcted his advertising career with
J Walter Thomson before moving to Lintas.
He has been in theatre, advertising, films, and
numerous plays, in which he has played both Siddhartha
and Othello. 1980 saw him taking up an assignment
with the United Nations. He has acted in
selected films like Pradip Kishen's Electric
Moon and Ismail Merchant's Cotton
Mary and more recently, Alyque Padamsee's
Begum Sumroo. Then there have been voice-overs
for documentaries, ads, and a recent CD with Vanraj
Bhatia. Today, he devotes most of his time to
the city and its causes, playing a role in organisations
like CRY, Bombay First, AGNI,
and Oval Cooperage Residents Association.
On a rainy afternoon, in his apartment overlooking
the Oval, we catch up with Gerson DA Cunha - actor,
adman and activist.
On beginnings as a scribe: I
started as a journalist with PTI - Rueters. I worked
for five years at their office in Flora Fountain.
Advertising was an accident. I was sitting with
a friend who was then with J Walter Thomson. Somebody
from the creative side of
J Walter Thomson was passing by. He asked me whether
I was a writer. I replied "No, I am a journalist."
He was looking out for copywriters for the agency
and asked me whether I would be interested in taking
a copy test. By that time I was completely disillusioned
with journalism and gave it a try. I was selected
and joined J Walter Thomson as a copywriter.
From J Walter Thomson, I shifted to Lintas and stayed
there for the rest of my career in advertising.
On journalism: I found advertising
much more honest than journalism. In advertising,
the advertiser knows his job. He uses a certain
amount of creativity with the intention to sell
a product and makes no bones about it. Journalism
also can be creative but makes a lot of claims about
itself. It presents itself for what it is definitely
not. After five years in the field I knew the inside
story and was glad to get out.
On advertising: Advertising
has the advantage that whatever you do is subject
to the approval of the market. If you do well,
you know; if you do not, you cannot escape from
it. The market remains the final adjudicator of
On films: I am not comfortable
with films. Frankly, it is not something that
I notice. For me it does not offer the excitement
that performing in front of a live audience does.
Plus unlike theatre, the actors are only one of
the factors that the director has to deal with
and you have to act according to his vision of
the movie. Also, I find acting in films more difficult.
You do not get to play out your role at a go.
Your scenes are shot over time and you have to
get into the same character at every stage.
On the business scene then and now:
It was considered a low thing - to be in advertising.
You had to be an engineer or a doctor or something
like that. People would not take you seriously.
"You make this!" or "You spent half the day deciding
whether 'Surf cleans whitest' or 'Surf cleans
cleanest'! " Today, here is this extraordinary
emphasis on brand building. The product does
not seem to be important. You could make the whole
ad and then add any product at the end, be it
a scooter, a soap or steel.
On UN work: That was interesting.
My work for UNESCO had to do with 'Programme Communication'.
It involved using the techniques of advertising
and marketing to achieve social and humanitarian
On "a physically magnificent city by the
sea becoming a decaying slum-ridden megapolis
shambling towards destruction." Yes, I
did say that [about Mumbai] somewhere. Yes, I
am disappointed. Maybe not with the city or its
people, but definitely with its governance. The
city is becoming more intolerant, there is a suppression
of democracy, it's almost a provincial backwater.
You have theatres being broken because somebody
does not agree with the film. And the most dangerous
result of all this is that the city is seeing
an exodus of the wrong kind. Some of the best
talents - qualified people who can matter to the
development of the city, people in the age group
of 18 to 30 - are leaving the city. The city should
have a million flowers blooming. Instead it kind
of resembles the purges in China when the entire
intellectual class was completely wiped out. The
effects of it are seen even today in China.
On the outlook: The only positive factor is that
we are now seeing some action by the citizens
of Bombay. There are various initiatives taken
by the citizens themselves, be it NGOs or local
welfare groups. The idea must be to coordinate
with the government departments whenever possible,
to let your voice be heard. There is a mobilisation
of like-minded people. You should remember that
it was one vote that brought down a government.
It is such mobilisation by groups like AGNI
- Action for good Governance through Networking
in India that gives me hope.
Interview: Tushar Uchil
Photographs: Vinayak Prabhu